Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From Poltergeist to Zeitgeist -- Reflections on "Paranormal Activity"

Let me get this out of the way: Paranormal Activity is scary.

Fucking scary.

For those that know me, I'm a horror film junkie, and am always looking for the next thrill. Hell, I just watched the wretched movie Teeth with the hopes that a good scare could be had out of "vagina dentata." I sat through My Bloody Valentine for chrissakes. And I am quick to pick apart a shitty horror film because I actually care about the genre and consider it to be one of the most honest and effective forms of storytelling.

I had a hard time picking apart Paranormal Activity. Sure, the movie has a lot of things working against it. A low-budget, that fucking stupid hand-held camera technique which is more effective at inducing nausea than actual terror, novice actors, and that whole Blair Witch is-it-real-or-is-it-made-up vibe. Somehow this film rises above those weaknesses and gives us an honest portrait of people driven mad by their paranormal obsessions.

For those who haven't seen it (and I will not spoil anything for you), the premise is simple. A young, unmarried couple (Katie and Micah) are under the impression their suburban home in San Diego is haunted. So, Micah buys an expensive video camera and follows his hot girlfriend all over the place to document any presence of the supernatural. A lot of the film is shot at night while the two are sleeping, and lots of scary shit happens.

The movie is scary, not just because of what happens on camera, but because of what it means culturally. Horror stories are not just scary on the surface, they're scary under it, too. And Paranormal Activity, more than any other horror film this year, captures those scares under the surface.

Recently I dated a woman who was obsessed with those fucking awful ghost shows on cable TV. "Ghost Adventures," "A Haunting,' etc. These shows all use the hand-held method and send their adventurers into supposed scary sites to uncover poltergeist activity. Usually they wind up scaring the shit out of themselves in the dark over nothing.

People love this shit though. Eat it up. I met a woman once who set up an entire vacation with her friends around going to New England to visit all the "haunted sites." Forget about our nation's historical landmarks, let's go see some haunted houses. During her recount of the trip, though, she shared a story about an honest-to-god witches' coven that operated in the area. Apparently the coven was threatened by her and her group because they suspected they were a coven from the West Coast. As I listened to her, she might as well have been talking about Tupac vs. Biggie Smalls. But the point is simple: people not only love this shit, they fully believe in it and live for it.

So here comes Paranormal Activity, and it capitalizes on our thirst for ghost stories. It also capitalizes on a lot more.

It comes at a time when the economy sucks and people are losing jobs and self-esteem. Our world is in disarray, and cleaning it up has become a monumental task. No longer do we feel like we have control over our futures. We are slaves to the present, living from paycheck to paycheck, eeking out our existence while hoping for a better tomorrow. We are a world frightened of the future.

This is when horror stories are at their best. They are reminders of our mortality and vulnerability to forces beyond our control. And Paranormal Activity is a reminder that we are all being followed by something evil, something we can't see, that is out to fuck us up. Call it destiny, call it bad luck, call it Satan, but we can relate to the struggles of this unmarried couple.

So, is this movie scary. Hell yeah. But in more ways than one.

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